Resilience. It’s a word you’ve heard a lot since 2020. It was a rallying cry for leaders and organizations as they urged their employees to push through adversity and adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the emphasis on resilience was misplaced, according to researcher and consultant Vivianne Castillo. Castillo, whose company HmntyCntrd helps leaders develop equitable, human-centered approaches to work and well-being, says that in urging people to be more resilient, companies “wasted three years focusing on solving the wrong thing.”
In a Chief-exclusive workshop, Castillo explains what businesses should emphasize instead: emotional endurance.
“Resiliency asks us to be reactive and over dependent on moments of trauma to evoke care and commitment. That’s the summer of 2020 in a nutshell, right?” she says. “Whereas emotional endurance really asks us to be holistic, and to demonstrate how organizations can begin to create infrastructures of care.”
To build healthier and more sustainable teams, Castillo details how leaders can move from common playbooks that exacerbate trauma to practices that mitigate trauma and prioritize care for both themselves and their employees.
Even as the pandemic slides into the rearview mirror for many, other types of trauma continue to affect the workplace, ranging from microaggressions, to mistreatment by clients, to major project failures, to the pressure on employees to perform at peak levels while grappling with personal challenges.
Before leaders can create infrastructures of care that encourage emotional endurance among their employees, they must deepen their own emotional endurance, Castillo says.
“When we are vulnerable and emotionally and mentally impaired, we are more likely to cause harm to ourselves and to others,” she says.
It begins with creating a personal care plan — one that helps you prepare for your work day, cope with obstacles during the work day, and secure your well-being at the day’s end.
Castillo likes to take an outdoor walk each morning. It’s time to be “able to have space to think and breathe and really just be present with what are my needs for today,” she says. “How am I feeling today? And how's that going to affect my meetings with my clients or meetings with my colleagues?”
She also practices body mapping — considering what signals her body might send her to indicate a situation is triggering anxiety, such as sensations in her back or chest.
Once in the office, if Castillo finds herself triggered, she knows to use coping strategies she’s selected ahead of time, such as visual focus exercises. In extremely overwhelming situations, Castillo says it’s also okay to just step away while using politically savvy language to excuse yourself.
“One of my go-to lines is, ‘To give this matter the attention it deserves, I need to step back and reflect on some of the insights we’ve gathered so far. Let’s take a break and resume in five minutes,” she says. “It’s about understanding and really leveraging the time and power that we have to create more space to take care of ourselves, while also understanding that we still need to be present.”
Outside of work, Castillo manages her wellbeing by meeting with a good friend every couple of weeks to discuss what’s going on in their lives both personally and professionally.
“The reason why a lot of us are suffering in silence is because we approach it as a solo journey, when, in reality, it should be a shared journey,” she says. “We should be able to invite people to support us, to encourage us, to hype us up when we really need it the most.”
Castillo also recommends leaders seek additional support from coaches for work issues, while those seeking to unpack trauma or triggers may benefit from working with a therapist. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she adds. “I go to specialists when I have issues with my heart. So I need to go to a specialist when I’m feeling off kilter with my spirit.”
There are three ways employers might exacerbate trauma, and three ways they can mitigate it, according to Castillo.
1. Lack of recognition vs. authentic recognition
Lack of recognition occurs when someone ignores, minimizes or gaslights employees about their traumatic experiences. For instance, leaders who initiate a reorganization of staff may act as though shuffling the make-up of teams or departments isn’t a big deal, while team members themselves may find it to be a very traumatizing experience.
The antidote to lack of recognition is authentic recognition. Through authentic recognition, people communicate acceptance, respect and compassion for those suffering trauma. This could include creating safe spaces for employees to disclose how they’re feeling after a difficult session, creating team-specific rituals for rest, and creating protocols for grief.
Protocols for grief could have addressed the distress many felt after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubery and Breonna Taylor in 2020. Too often, Castillo says, workplace leaders announce to employees, “If you need anything, let me know.”
“That’s unhelpful,” Castillo says. “What’s actually helpful is saying, ‘Here’s some unique things that we’re going to be doing within our org to create space for people to think and to be able to take care of themselves.’”
2. Lack of transparency vs. intentional transparency
Lack of transparency is another way employers exacerbate trauma. Castillo explains that limited insight into the organization and decisions made by management can block employees from accessing resources or opportunities. For example, if a manager learns about changes to a business plan but doesn’t share those with their team, the team might unknowingly prioritize intensive projects that have little impact on the business and result in team member burnout.
Instead, Castillo says, employers should practice intentional transparency: granting people meaningful insights into the business and the opportunity to give actional feedback. This can include providing clear rituals for team updates, explaining team processes — including how to make use of mental health resources — and explaining rationales for strategic decision-making. Such transparency can inspire trust, collaboration and empowerment on a team.
3. Lack of accountability vs. conscious accountability
Lack of accountability happens when teams refuse to address past harms, making employees feel psychologically unsafe. This may occur when employees voice concerns regularly through internal surveys about gaps in accessibility and inclusivity, but the feedback doesn’t result in changes in the workplace. This may ultimately result in employees feeling like they’ve been betrayed by their company. Employees from marginalized groups, in particular, may be more likely to quit in such circumstances.
Conscious accountability, in contrast, can mitigate this trauma. It entails accepting responsibility and the consequences for harmful actions. Apologizing is a key step. “The reason why that matters is because it communicates that the relationships you have are valuable and important,” Castillo says.
Developing emotional endurance and a system of care for employees can create healthier teams, although it takes courage along the way, Castillo explains. It’s the type of work that can stir up difficult emotions, but leaders should persist in that work for everyone’s sake, including their own.
“Choose courage over comfort,” she says, “so that you can not only have a sustainable work experience, but so that you don’t lose yourself.”
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